CASE STUDY: The 'Birdy' Golden Retriever
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.


Haley is a three-year-old female Golden Retriever. She comes from well-respected field lines and her sire is an American (Amateur) Field Champion.

Presenting Problem

Haley's owner posted her problem on the agiledogs e-mail list recently. After nearly a year of successfully participating in agility trials, Haley has begun running out of the ring to chase birds. This happened twice at a recent trial, and again in a later practice. The first time, Haley took off from the start line to chase low flying birds. Because the timer wasn't ready Haley and her owner were moved to the end of the jump height to run. On the second try Haley took the first two obstacles then bolted from the ring to chase the birds again. In a practice the following week Haley was in a sit/stay then suddenly took off to chase birds around the practice ring. Her owner reports that she did this several times.


Haley was started in puppy kindergarten at nine-weeks-old. Her owner trained her in obedience throughout her first year. After a year Haley's owner started training her in flyball and agility. She reports that Haley was frightened by a near-attack from another dog in flyball training, and they no longer participate in that sport.

Haley has trained agility at three different training schools. Her owner reports that "I got in a class that was too advanced for Haley. I didn't know any better. This was my first dog and first attempt at agility. She attempted the teeter and A-frame at full height and with that she was scared to death of them and it took about a year to get her on the teeter." Haley and her owner now work with a well-respected trainer and competitor and the owner is very pleased with the instruction and with their progress.

Haley has earned the following titles: UKC UAGII, AKC AX & MXJ, NADAC OAC & EJC, CPE CL2-R & CL1-HF, and CGC & TDI.

Previous Episodes

In their early training Haley's owner reports that "Haley had attention problems and would have the zoomies all the time but in this class (3rd session, lower level) I got her to control them a lot." As they continued to compete successfully Haley's owner states that "We have/had wonderful stays and she was always in tune to me. Recently, if I was just a tad off in my signals Haley would have the zoomies on the course. I don't stifle the zoomies. I feel she needs to get her stress out. She seemed to also be doing it when it was cold out. She never left the ring but just ran in circles then decided to take a jump and then we could continue. Some of our best runs were with those zoomies. Only happens the very first run of the weekend."

At a trial over Memorial Day weekend Haley was retrieving and playing off-lead before the trial began with her owner and another dog. She took off and ran to a nearby lake (the lake couldn't be seen from where they were playing), jumped in, and swam to the middle. She ignored her owner's calls to come out of the water. Her owner finally had to jump in and go get her.

The next episodes were the bird-chasing incidents that prompted Haley's owner to seek advice.

Videotape Observation

Haley's owner sent me a videotape of a series of their agility runs during trials. The videotape shows that Haley has very successfully completed Excellent level agility courses, particularly Jumpers courses. Knowing that she has had contact problems in the past, I watched her Standard runs, particularly her contact performances, with interest. I saw that Haley's dogwalk and teeter performance often consist of just touching the upper part of the zone before leaping over the rest. The A-frame has been a continuing issue. A few of the runs were a two on/two off behavior, the others were a slight slowing at the apex to creep into the zone.

In the first 'bird run' I observed Haley take the first jump, then a tunnel. As her owner called her to the A-frame, she zoomed around it and out into the field where she made a large circle.

Previous Treatments

According to Haley's owner "I have tried a couple of things so far. Once was to long line her (author's note: by 'long line' she means to put a long leash on the dog and allow her the opportunity to chase birds, stopping her with the line if she did not respond to a recall) and she did check herself twice and it had no effect on her... Took her in the field and practiced recalls when she went after the birds. She did OK sometimes but other times I had to pull on the leash and run away from her to get her attention. I did treat her every time she came to me."

She continues "My mom has bird feeders in the backyard and Haley goes charging to them every time she is let out. What I started doing here was, opening the door and having her stay until released. Once released she would go running towards the birds and I would call her back to me in the house. She has done well with this so far."

Diagnosis & Prognosis

After the initial bird-chasing incidents Haley's owner states that she asked some of the other people at the trial for their opinions on the cause. She says "I did question if this was a stress or a bird thing... Everyone seemed to think it was a bird thing." Based on the background information that Haley's owner has provided, along with my observation of her behavior on videotape, I have to disagree with 'everyone'. I believe that the problem started due to mild stress brought on by a lack of confidence or certainty regarding her performance in agility trials, particulary contact obstacles. By chance, Haley stumbled upon ways to avoid the stress (chase, run, play, swim) and quickly learned that activities other than agility could be fun and stress-free. It seems likely that, without intervention, she will increasingly choose the stress-free options.

Information from the instructor who works with Haley and her owner confirmed my initial impressions. The instructor states "I think Haley has a wonderful temperament, but was introduced to agility in such a way that many of the obstacles created a great deal of fear and stress."

Another clue that this behavior may be related to stress over contact issues came from the background information that Haley's owner provided. On the day of the first 'bird chasing' incident she states that "our first run, standard, I pulled her from the ring because she bailed off the teeter." My guess is that this caused Haley to feel some increased pressure in the ring, regardless of how nicely she was removed. When her next run began, she found a way to avoid the stress altogether.


"No Bird"

Many of the initial recommendations on the agiledogs e-mail list focused on ways to deal with the distraction of the birds. After gaining more information (from the video, by obtaining an expanded behavioral history, and from information provided by their agility instructor) I don't necessarily believe that the birds are the source of the problem; they are a symptom. However, I do believe that many of the ideas suggested may be helpful for general distraction training, especially for sporting and field dogs. Chris Parker, an accomplished and well-respected trainer of Golden Retrievers, replied "Goldens are not supposed to chase birds, they are supposed to mark birds and retrieve them (upon being told to do so)." Good point. So much for the excuse "but he's a field dog".

For field work, Chris teaches the dog a "no bird" command for those times when the shooter misses his mark and there is no fallen bird to retrieve. She says "when training a dog for field work, I have an assistant/thrower fire a starters pistol but throw no bird. I then turn my dog quietly off the line and say quietly 'no bird' as I walk a few feet away from the line. When he settles and regains focus, I then set him back up on the line for the next mark."

To apply this concept to agility Chris teaches a 'no bird'command with a toy. "Working slowly with the dog I first teach him to retrieve the toy to hand. Then I teach him to NOT retrieve the toy by placing the toy on the ground in front of the dog (on leash) and then turning the dog away from the toy saying 'no bird' and rewarding with either another toy, or food from my hand." Chris continues "After a while I take the leash off and I start to turn the dog off the toy and over a jump, then two jumps, then half a course. And I reward from my hand and we ignore the toy on the ground... Turn him off of anything he finds motivating, and then reinforce him for working with you with something MORE motivating."

Chris is actually describing something that behaviorists call the Premack Principle. You reinforce the less likely behavior (jumping when a toy is on the ground) with the more likely behavior (getting a treat, or playing with the toy). With repetition, your dog comes to learn that doing what you want leads to getting to do what he wants. It's not a quick fix (there aren't any) but it is a concept that can be very useful.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Chasing birds is a self-reinforcing behavior. This means that it is an enjoyable activity in and of itself. We would call this intrinsically motivated. It requires no external reward to maintain it and cause it to continue. However, it is possible to decrease the probability of an intrinsically motivated behavior by using a counterintuitive technique -- reinforce it. Now you might think that this is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, but there is a very clever way to make this idea work to actually decrease a self-reinforcing behavior.

A common example of this concept in many psychology textbooks tells of a man who worked nights and slept during the day. In the summer the neighborhood children played ball in front of his house and the noise kept him awake. The very smart man did the opposite of what you might expect. Instead of trying to make them stop, he offered to pay them each $1 a day to play in front of his house for 3 hours. They were happy to comply. The next week he told them he could only pay them 50 cents to play, and they still agreed, but without much enthusiasm. In fact, they did not play for the full 3 hours a day that week. The next week he told them he could only pay them 25 cents to play, and they refused, saying that was not enough and they had better things to do with their time!

In this case Haley is chasing birds because it is fun and relaxing. If we were to add an external reinforcer, such as a click and Haley's favorite food treat, we would actually be changing Haley's motivation for chasing birds from an internal one (fun and relaxation) to an external one (click and treat). We are paying Haley for bird chasing. In the short term, this will increase the behavior. However, if we highly reinforce bird chasing for a short while, until Haley is purposely chasing birds in order to earn the treats, then decrease the rate of reinforcement, Haley's bird chasing will decrease. If we then completely quit adding the external reinforcer, Haley's bird chasing should be much less likely to occur spontaneously. The danger in using this technique is that you fail to reinforce highly enough to actually change the motivation from internal to external.

Will Work for Contacts

Lack of certainty and confidence when performing contact obstacles seems to be one of Haley's main problems. This has been a long-standing issue, and I believe it must be addressed in order to solve the problem. Haley's owner must have very clear and attainable requirements for Haley's performance. The videotaped observations showed that Haley performed her contacts in a variety of ways and that her owner did not always give her consistent feedback regarding acceptable performance. Haley's owner must decide on the required contact behavior, then she must set up her training situations so that Haley is able to be successful on a regular basis. In addition to clarity, Haley must also learn to love contacts. There has been so much uncertainty and stress surrounding these obstacles, that anything less will not do. Haley needs some major jackpots for correct contact performance. Receiving her dinner on the completion of a correct contact performance would be a good way to start.

Incorrect contact performances need to be handled very, very gently in order to keep Haley from displaying more avoidance behavior. The simplest way to handle them may be for the owner to do nothing at all (become perfectly still and silent, no eye contact with the dog) for 3 seconds, then begin training again. The 3 second mini-time-out marks the fact that there was an error, but does not add any other unpleasant consequence.

In fact, during retraining it may be best to completely ignore incorrect performances, but to highly reinforce all correct ones. During the training stage, the lack of reinforcement alone should be enough to motivate an attempt at correct behaviors. Once Haley is offering correct contact performances at least 90% of the time, her owner can start reinforcing on a more variable schedule. This is a good technique for a very worried or very soft dog. It removes the stress over mistakes by simply ignoring them. But it also clearly indicates when the correct behavior has occurred with strong reinforcement.

I used this method when my dog was having weave pole problems. If I reacted to the errors at all he would get more worried, and make even more mistakes. Instead, I did not acknowledge errors, but added major jackpots for correct performances. Once at a run-thru I put some leftover salmon from my dinner on a table just outside the ring. When he performed the weaves perfectly, we had a quick salmon party, then completed the course. In a very short time he was nailing those weaves!


Haley's owner recently wrote to me with the following update (it has been several months since the first bird-chasing incident). She says "I am starting to get very frustrated with this whole thing and agility is beginning to not be fun anymore. I dread going to trials now, where as before I couldn't wait to get up in the morning and run her... The past two shows she went chasing for birds... This past weekend she ran out of the jumpers ring looking for them and there weren't any birds around at all." This is very sad, as Haley looked like a very capable enthusiastic dog in many of her earlier agility runs. However, the fact that the behavior is occurring without any birds present, and that it has generalized to Jumpers as well as Standard runs, is not surprising.

One of the issues that I find instructive about this case is that it is easy to focus on the wrong 'cause' of behavior problems. In this case it seemed that the obvious cause was the presence of birds. However, if Haley was truly confident and was truly enjoying a stress-free agility experience, she would never have taken the opportunity to do something else instead. She was looking for an 'out' and it came in the form of flying birds. Later on she didn't even need a specific reason to take off, the agility environment became the stimulus. This issue points out the danger of assuming that we can really understand what is motivating our dogs to behave in certain ways. Sometimes we are very wrong in our perceptions. This can cause us to waste a lot of time and energy on inappropriate or ineffective solutions.

This case also points out how subtle warning signs of stress might be. It would be very easy to miss the signals, especially when the dog is a positive stressor (adding more activity when nervous). In reviewing the videotape of Haley's runs, it was possible to pinpoint behaviors that, at the time, probably did not seem at all important. For example, when Haley made a wrong tunnel entrance and was required to re-do it correctly, she became a bit more frantic. Some people would interpret this as enthusiasm, but it is not.

Those of us who train for performance events must constantly be aware of small, subtle changes in our dogs' behavior. No matter how well the dog can complete the basic exercises required, she must also find the experience fun, enjoyable, and stress-free, or problems will develop.


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